Career Development: What It Is and How to Excel

  • Sep 26
Career Development: What It Is and How to Excel

Often, when people think about a career, it seems static and monolithic – a fifty-year commitment. But a 2021 poll from Fast Company revealed nearly 52% of workers were considering a job change, with 44% sporting concrete, actionable plans. And of the U.S. adults who quit their jobs that year, 53% changed their occupation or field of work. So, the reality of a single, lifelong career might not remain entirely plausible for the majority of workers. Fortunately, the concept of career development fits perfectly within this scheme. In fact, the roiling of the job market points to both the existence of and need for adequate career development.

Perhaps you’re among those unsatisfied with your current position, looking to step up in your organization or into a different role entirely. If so, recognize that positive advancement rarely happens accidentally. Meeting career aspirations happens through carefully defined goals and a curated plan that propels you forward.

Fortunately, we’re going to discuss the importance of career development, and how you can move from simple wishing to actionable steps. But first, it’s important to understand what career development is and isn’t.

What Is Career Development?

First and foremost, it’s imperative to recognize that development isn’t a short-term solution. Rather, this sort of ongoing process lasts a lifetime, continually reassessing strengths and weaknesses and helping propel toward goals. Furthermore, it involves actionable steps that help take you from where you currently are to where you want to be. However, because that ultimate destination can change with time, experience, or myriad other factors, constant reassessment becomes a necessity.

So, at the base level, development is a process of assessing and reassessing concrete career goals, then crafting a plan involving actionable steps that helps meet those aspirations.

Of course, because this sort of advancement might span different organizations, it doesn’t have to occur within one job. In fact, it might even signal a shift from one field to another. But it can also mean simply moving up within one’s existing company. Because it’s based around personal goals, career development is different from one individual to another.

Types of Development

It’s also important to recognize that there are at least two different forms of career development: formal and informal. A healthy plan should include elements of both in order to help provide a robust and manageable track for meeting goals.

  • Formal: This development typically signifies various organizational-led paths, such as higher education, job training, or obtaining certifications. These typically occur over a shorter period of time, with set start and end dates.
  • Informal: This development generally involves self-led activities, such as online, self-paced courses, mentorships, and networking. Because the activities are less concrete, they are essentially more long-term.

The Career Development Process

Again, recognize that the career development process is cyclical – it happens repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime. That’s because goals shift. What someone wants in their twenties might be entirely different from their aspirations ten or fifteen years later. And this can be impacted by both personal and professional factors.

For example, family, life circumstances, and even enjoyment in a particular career field can sway an individual to either stay or leave the path they formulated. So, a periodic assessment and reassessment is natural when it comes to enacting the process. That said, there are six primary steps in career development:

  • Self-Assessment
  • Goal Setting
  • Determining Necessary Steps
  • Detailing Your Plan of Action
  • Executing the Plan
  • Assessing and Amending

Naturally, some formats might include several more granular steps or combines some of these together. But generally, it’s important to include them all in the process.


The first step toward adequate development is self-assessment. In particular, identifying your personal values, strengths, weaknesses and wants both in personal and professional life. After all, the fields aren’t entirely separate. So, no matter how much you attempt to create a work life balance, they’ll creep into each other. An extreme example – moving across the country to pursue a new career will invariable impact one’s partner and children.

Having an adequate understanding of who you are and what you want in life will help inform your overall goals. And because these elements can shift over time, the first step is always reassessing them.

This part of the development method requires strict honesty and self-awareness. Because if you attempt to convince yourself you have strength in areas you don’t or that you want outcomes you don’t actually, the entire process will become misaligned. The honesty required at this point means accepting your areas of deficiency and recognizing the need for growth. However, it also means understanding spheres of proficiency, ability, and adeptness without becoming prideful or vainglorious.

All in all, honest and real self-awareness is key.

Set Appropriate Goals

The natural outcome of self-assessment is recognition of goals that you want to achieve. For example, if you know your current company fails to align with your personal values, you might set the goal to find a new organization or career path. However, simply setting that objective without further specification is impractical at best and quite possibly disastrous.

The goals you set should be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This helps set the precedent for everything that follows in the process. SMART goals help provide a check for later activities, to determine whether they actually helped meet objectives. They also provide a concrete aim and assist later reflection to determine your level of success in career development.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you keep from setting challenging goals. But it means that you might have to take smaller steps and recognize other short-term steps to meet larger objectives. In fact, it might be best to set both immediate and future goals when determining your steps. For instance, a short-term objective could be obtaining a CPA license with the long-term goal of becoming your company’s CFO.

Again, because goals are so personal and individualized, they will likely differ greatly from one individual to the next. Some might signify full career shifts while others necessitate remaining with one company for decades. It all comes down to preference.

Determine Necessary Steps

As a part of SMART goals, you must determine the steps for achieving what you hope to accomplish. It’s never enough to choose a goal and then stride aimlessly forward. You should instead have a system of smaller goals and objectives that work toward completing your overall aspirations.

So, continuing with the example of obtaining a CPA license, your first step would not be taking the exam. You might ensure you have the proper knowledge of requirements, register for several preparatory courses, or something similar. Before you ever start the career development activities, you should know what they’re going to be. That way, you have a solid understanding of the results you expect and how to make them happen.

Furthermore, your steps should be actionable. If you have no ability to enact them, then you’ve left an element of your growth up to chance, and that has no place in the method. Make sure to have concrete steps in place that are within your ability to actuate.

Detail Your Plan of Action

Of course, this is extremely similar to determining the necessary steps toward meeting your goals. However, it entails more of an organization process. Once you know the steps, completely outline the order they need to happen in to help make your goal a reality. Determine dates, times, and other elements necessary to completing the various steps. That way, you have a solid strategy for getting from where you are to where you hope to be in your career.

Executing the Plan

Quite simply, this is the phase of the career development process where you enact the plan you created. If you determined to take various online courses and find a personal mentor, you do those things. After all, a brilliant plan without proper execution is still nothing more than a good idea. In other words, you’ll never achieve your goals if you fail to follow through on the steps you outlined, no matter how detailed they are.

Assess and Amend

Where in the process this step takes place and how frequently might vary, especially depending on different short and long-term goals. For instance, you might opt to perform an assessment after each major step of the process to determine how it succeeded or failed. Instead, you could only assess the execution after completing all the outlined steps. So, this part of the career development method is somewhat amorphous, rather unlike the other parts.

No matter how, when, or where you choose to do it, though, assessing and amending is paramount to success. Because this is where you determine whether your actions have worked toward meeting your goals. If not, then you develop new steps to help propel you forward. After all, if something isn’t working, and you continue trying to beat down that door, you’ll only end up hurting yourself. So, whether you do it regularly or infrequently, make sure to properly assess whether the process you created is working for your needs.

The Process Starts Again

Finally, recognize this seventh step-of-sorts – starting the process over. At regular intervals after executing steps and completing goals, you should cycle back through. If in the midst of your career development, you determine the goals you set were inappropriate, you shouldn’t stick to the same plan. Again, this is where personal matters intersect with professional. Life has a way of taking us places we never thought of, so we need to continually reassess strategies in light of those changes.

Tips for Career Development

Now that we’ve taken a look at the overall process of development, it’s important to recognize various tips that can help guide the activity. While there are almost certainly dozens of actionably tips, we’ve chosen six that we see as vital.

1. Understand and Acknowledge Your Interests

This tip goes hand-in-hand with self assessment. Understanding your actual interests and personal wants is paramount to career success. We’ve all heard the stories about younger workers burdened with expectation to fulfill certain roles who want something entirely different. Forming an effective development plan means understanding what you are interested in as a person.

So, if your parent expects you to take on the family business, but you have no desire to do so, knowing and acknowledging that matters. If you’re stuck in a job that you hate, attempting to move up in that organization probably isn’t the right move. Again, this requires a vast amount of honesty – particularly because it can lead to life-altering decisions. But in the long-run establishing a successful career path requires understanding where you truly want to go, not just where you’re expected to travel.

2. Regularly Seek Out Feedback

Perhaps through mentorship, job evaluation, or some other means, you need to regularly seek out feedback from others. This might pertain directly to the job your performing or your career goals overall. However, it’s easy to get stuck in a mental loop and become unable to see past our own experiences and biases. That’s why seeking an external source to help guide and direct you is so important.

Attempt to set up a system where you receive frequent information on how you’re doing, what you could do better, and how to improve. Because ultimately, the most helpful additions to your career development might come from outside yourself.

3. Set Stretch or Challenge Goals

We mentioned this earlier, but don’t forget to challenge yourself with the goals you set. If your aspirations are low, you may achieve them, but you could potentially push yourself to heights you never dreamed of achieving. Of course, this doesn’t mean throwing rationality and realism by the wayside – goals should always remain SMART. But even lofty objectives can be achievable given the right planning and execution.

As a practice, it can help to set goals that are easily achievable in the immediate timeframe as well as objectives in the long-term that seem difficult to obtain. Then, as you progress through your career, determine the best steps to continue pushing toward those higher, more challenging accomplishments.

4. Invest In Your Network

Part of informal career development is networking – creating mutually beneficial relationships among peers and other professionals. According to HubSpot, nearly 85% of jobs are filled through networking, and CNBC estimates that 70% of jobs are never posted. So, obviously, these types of connections play a major role in career advancement and job placement.

Sometimes, the easiest way to achieve your goals is to know the right people. Other times, networking will put you in positions where you find your objectives changing entirely, entering new fields you never expected. Regardless, it’s imperative to build strong relationships and invest in professional connections.

5. Stay Informed

It will be next to impossible to achieve your overall career goals if you fail to keep up with changes in your industry. And because these shifts can happen overnight for some fields, it’s absolutely vital to stay in-the-know with regular updates and research. Some sites have helpful resources that make this process easier, like The Vector Impact, which features articles about a wide range of career-related topics.

Subscribing to industry specific news sources, building strong personal and professional connections, and paying attention to trends can all help accomplish this. Although, there are arguably many other ways to do so. For example, through online continuing education, such as that which VTR Learning provides.

Regardless your method, discovering ways to stay updated about shifts and changes might make the difference for your overall hopes.

6. Take Setbacks In Stride

No matter who you are or what field you work in, you’ll encounter setbacks to your career development. But don’t become overly discouraged when this happens. Instead, make sure to use these setbacks as opportunity for learning, reflection, and even reassessment. In other words, stay optimistic.

You should also recognize that these setbacks generally won’t keep you from your overall goals, even if they slow down the process or seem impossible to surmount. Seek counsel from mentors or trusted peers and determine a path forward to either overcome challenges or discover new paths.


Career development is both a necessary and exciting aspect of the modern business environment. It promises the opportunity for growth and continued learning while helping hone your skills and even personal attributes. Here, we’ve discussed what it is, how it can help you, the process of development, and tips to help you get started. But that’s only the beginning.

If you’re really looking to get a leg up, you can seek out a variety of different sources to help inform your journey. And if you’re looking for ways to help grow your overall skills, be sure to check out our courses, which range from everything from Medicare training to accounting, management, and human resources.

Article written by Braden Norwood.

Last updated January 29, 2024